The list of practices we label destructive is long – and we consider them even worse when we see them publicly held up against personal suffering such as trauma or clinical depression. The instinct for most people is to take immediate action to help, and the logical way to do that is to stop the harmful behavior as soon as possible.
Firstly, self-harm is not a sign of suicide risk. While those who self-harm may eventually take their own life,it is very unlikely this is their intent. Harming oneself is an alternative to suicide¹. A person who injures themselves is likely seeking to replace emotional pain (that might include thoughts of suicide without a plan) with physical pain. Cutting releases endorphins² and shock the brain, providing temporary relief from emotional pain. Even hitting oneself can provide relief; the human brain will ignore a source of pain if a much stronger one is introduced³.
Secondly, a person who is reliant on any coping mechanism cannot be expected to simply stop. To them it makes as much sense as telling a diabetic to stop taking insulin or telling anyone at all to stop eating. Self-harm is a result of being overwhelmed and desperately needing relief; it’s not choosing to indulge in an extra piece of cake or watch one more show when you know you should be sleeping.
If you truly want to help someone who relies on destructive coping mechanisms, help them find – and practice – new ways to cope. When they are able to rely on less destructive methods consistently and without help, they can then begin to wean themselves off of their old coping mechanisms
Don’t threaten them (“If you ever do this again, I’ll…”).
Don’t shame them (“You’re not going to go cut yourself, are you?”).
Don’t add to feelings of guilt (“It hurts me when you do this.”).
Help them find something better. Go get it for them, if you have to. Gently encourage, be supportive, and understand that this is an addiction they probably feel they cannot fully control. Love them, support them, respect them, and be patient.
Trying to rush or force them may do more harm than good.